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Sherlock Holmes (review)

Elementary Perfection

Sherlock Holmes is one of the great characters: impossibly Byronic, what with his superior intelligence and (apparent) imperviousness to the fairer sex; impossibly misanthropic, what with his disdain for almost everyone in the world but his amanuensis, Watson; impossibly brilliant, what with his near-psychic ability to pin down the past, present, and sometimes future of total strangers based merely on the state of their wardrobe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t have known it, but the chilly remove and observational distance he embedded in Holmes’ literary DNA makes him the perfect wireframe over which almost any story can be overlain… and created, with his serial stories, the first action franchise.
I think Conan Doyle might well love what Guy Ritchie has done with the world’s first consulting detective: Sherlock Holmes is a much greater departure from Ritchie’s cinematic past (see: RocknRolla, Snatch), which tends toward tongue-in-cheek depictions of modern urban criminals, than it is from the Holmes of Conan Doyle’s stories [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]. Purists will moan, probably — that’s sorta their job — but the spirit of Holmes is thoroughly intact in this dynamic, vigorous adaptation. There’s a fine line Ritchie walks here that hasn’t been achieved by any similar fresh take on a familar character: this Holmes is nerdy enough to be respectful to the beloved source material but geeky enough to express its affection the only way geeks know how: with winking snark and post-postmodern metacommentary.

But not a lot of that, either. The suggestion of steampunk — the aggressively science-fiction-esque perspective on the Victorian era that contemporary fantasy often takes — remains just a suggestion. The hints that Harry Potter had more than a passing influence on this film remain only hints. Most of what feels modern here is in how the story is told, rather than in the story itself.

So this Holmes — the script is by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham (Invictus, Don’t Say a Word), Simon Kinberg (Jumper, X-Men: The Last Stand), and Lionel Wigram — opens mid-escapade, à la an Indiana Jones movie: we’re thrown right into the fray, into the narrative and into the relationships of the characters. (Or as if, perhaps, this were the third or fourth movie in a series, instead of the first: oh, yes, there’s an opening left for a sequel, which I heartily hope we’ll get.) There’s no setup: you sink or swim as you navigate what turns out to be something of a collapse of the partnership between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.: The Soloist, Iron Man) and Watson (Jude Law: The Holiday, Breaking and Entering), the latter of whom is about to move out of their digs at 221b Baker Street to get married. You’re left to wonder, for the most part, what the deal is with Irene Adler, the slightly shady but very classy American (Rachel McAdams: The Time Traveler’s Wife, State of Play) Holmes has clearly crossed paths with before — what small knowledge about her readers of Conan Doyle bring with them into the theater won’t quite suffice to explain all. You’ve seen the trailer: sex and alcohol are clearly involved.

I remind any and all objectors to the nature of the relationship between Holmes and Adler that plenty of other players in Conan Doyle’s sandbox have filled in gaps that the author left open. For instance, Manly W. Wellman and Wade Wellman, in their 1975 novel Sherlock Holmes’ War of the Worlds [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], posited that Holmes was shacked up with his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, a beautiful young widow. Conan Doyle never said she was a kindly old lady — we all just assumed that.

Holmes is slob? Did Conan Doyle say he wasn’t? Watson is a true partner to the great, brilliant detective? Conan Doyle’s Watson is a medical doctor and a war hero. Both Downey Jr. and Law are having so much fun here with such iconic characters, but they’re having it in ways that are both uniquely their own — it must be hard to defy the decades of tradition Holmes and Watson come laden with, even if those traditions were the inventions of previous interpretors of Conan Doyle — and perfectly faithful, in their own way. (Downey plays Holmes, for instance, as lonely, and about to get lonelier as Watson pulls away from him, but too stubborn to admit it… and maybe the Watson who “wrote” those original Holmes stories was too obtuse to notice that his friend’s seclusion wasn’t necessarily voluntary.)

The story — about a nefarious lord (Mark Strong: Body of Lies, Good) who wants to bring a peculiar brand of religious fundamentalism to bear in the British government — is not something Conan Doyle ever invented. But it’s not unlikely that it could have been, and with its combination of a little magic, a dash of wit, and a lot of action, it seems well suited for the “everything’s in transition” feeling to this Holmes and this Watson, and to the early 21st century world into which this interpretation comes. How much more perfect could it be?


Watch Sherlock Holmes online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • http://www.dubhsidhestudios.com bronxbee

    “Holmes is slob? Did Conan Doyle say he wasn’t? ”

    actually, Holmes *is* portrayed as a bit of a slob — papers are strewn everywhere, he keeps tobacco in a slipper, he shoots into the wall of his rented rooms (!), his chemicals and experiments and studies are left strewn about, he leaves the remains of his tea laying on his desk… Watson has a lot to put up with, if you’re tidy (as one would hope that a doctor would be). the beauty of Doyle’s portrayals of Holmes and Watson is that so much is left out. and so much can be added in… (sort of the same reasons Doctor Who generated so much fan fiction!)

  • funWithHeadlines

    Question about the film: In the trailers, and now in your review, it indicates that magic plays a part. My memory of the stories is that magic NEVER played a part. Every time it seemed that something supernatural was involved, a natural explanation was made by the end. Sort of like Scooby Doo, in a way :)

    So does this movie change that? Does it view magic as real?

  • MaryAnn

    Not gonna reveal on the magic issue. Sorry. :->

    Perhaps after the film opens and folks have had a chance to see it, we can talk about this…

  • Chris

    This would have been a great movie if it had been Jason Bourne goes back in time to Victorian England. Unfortunetly though it’s a Sherlock Holmes movie that more so tries to Holmes into Bourne.

  • http://hoopla.nu Stuart

    You used the word amanuensis.

    That’s awesome. :-)

  • funWithHeadlines

    Can you at least address whether or not they are true to the spirit of Holmes in their use of “magic”? Or have they gone modern sensibility on us?

  • MaryAnn

    Look, I’m trying not to spoil the experience of the film for those who haven’t seen it yet, which is almost everyone. I *did* say that “the spirit of Holmes is thoroughly intact”…

  • MaryAnn

    Wait: What’s the difference between “the spirit of Holmes” and “modern sensibility” when it comes to magic?

  • http://law.ufl.edu Lawschool Douchebag

    “misanthropic” and “amanuensis” in the same sentence? grandiloquent much?

  • Patti H.

    Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed the film so much! My daughter and I can’t wait to see it, and we are very much classic (but also interpretive) Holmes fans.

  • funWithHeadlines

    The spirit of Holmes is that everything has a logical explanation in the end, and magic is never the answer. If there is anything absolutely supernatural in the script, they ruined the spirit of Holmes since that is, by definition, beyond human in explanation and cannot be intuited by us.

  • MaryAnn

    So you’re saying that a “modern sensibility” includes a belief in magic?

  • Baz

    I have read every single Holmes story, novel, and even Doyle’s own parody, and I am so excited for this movie I am a little embarrassed by it. But only a little…

    Thanks for a fantastic review!

    I’m glad they’re gone in the same direction as The Hound of the Baskervilles and done something supernatural. Or, by the sounds of it, what seems to be supernatural but will be debunked in the end by Holmes’ genius. I’m assuming it’s not because a) it’s a Holmes movie and b) there’d be nowhere to go in the plot after ‘And he is in fact supernatural. Dear me, Watson, what will we do?’

    Made my day!

  • Dr Joe

    Purists will moan, probably — that’s sorta their job…

    Oh, that is simply delightful!

    I was thinking of asking if every word you type is po-mo mouth-breathing, and/or snark chasing its own tail for its own sake, but of course you’ve made that entirely unnecessary. Cheers!

  • Paul

    “Shadows over Baker Street” is actually an anthology of stories in which Holmes runs across Lovecraft’s mythos. Obviously non-canon, but Neil Gaiman has a story in it and lots of genre readers consider him some kind of demi-god.

    As for whether or not a “modern sensibility” includes a belief in magic or not, that depends upon how you define it. If you define it academically, then modern thinking does not include magic. If you define it as what 99% of the people in world actually believe, then it does include magic/religion in one form or another, but perhaps a different kind of magic/religion than before.

  • Moe

    I had to look up the word “amanuensis”, but I learned something. Heaven forbid us wretched heathens learn anything…

  • Knightgee

    Does McAdams character play an actual romantic foil to Holmes? One of the things I liked about Holmes was that his dedication to his craft superseded all, including romantic engagements, which he didn’t show any interest in when Doyle wrote him. I can forgive the lack of cocaine use because that simply won’t work in a movie that’s looking for something other than an R-rating, but I’ll be just a tad disappointed if they give him a romance just for the sake of Hollywood familiarity.

  • Michael

    Just saw it. Loved it. I now want:

    A) A sequel

    B) A movie made based on Mark Frost’s novel “The List of Seven” (main character: Arthur Conan Doyle meeting an agent of the Queen who inspires the Holmes character)

    C) An explanation of just how the heck you can get to the Tower Bridge from Parliament so damn fast. ;) (The movie itself was entertaining enough to where it didn’t bother me, but it was amusing.)

  • Michael

    And Knightgee: What they have is…more a “relationship” than a romance. Rest assured it’s not some tacked on “oh, let’s pair these two up just so we can court the romance demographic.”

  • Drave

    Having seen this opening day, I am going to get on the “truer to the books than any previous film version I’ve seen” train. This may end up being my favorite movie of the year in a year filled with amazing movies.

  • http://www.zoombits.fr/carte-memoire/cles-usb/cle-usb-kingston-64gb-datatraveler/13355 usb flash 64gb

    Good movie! Holmes is portrayed as a bit of a slob — papers are strewn everywhere, he keeps tobacco in a slipper, he shoots into the wall of his rented rooms, his chemicals and experiments and studies are left strewn about, he leaves the remains of his tea laying on his desk… Watson has a lot to put up with, if you’re tidy.
    Overall, was a good movie. But shouldn’t go if you have already read the book.

  • Simone

    I can’t recommend this film although Jude Law was an excellent Dr Watson. Robert Downey Jr mumbled his way through a very long, very repetitive, and very violent 2 1/2 hours. It reminded me of a Raiders of the Ark remake, set in London, but with less humor and wit.

  • funWithHeadlines

    As for whether or not a “modern sensibility” includes a belief in magic or not, that depends upon how you define it. If you define it academically, then modern thinking does not include magic. If you define it as what 99% of the people in world actually believe, then it does include magic/religion in one form or another, but perhaps a different kind of magic/religion than before.

    I doubt the 99% figure given how secular most of western Europe is, but your point is valid. However, it is beside the point of Holmes. The entire world can chase irrationality, but Holmes can never do that.

  • MaryAnn

    Does McAdams character play an actual romantic foil to Holmes? One of the things I liked about Holmes was that his dedication to his craft superseded all, including romantic engagements, which he didn’t show any interest in when Doyle wrote him.

    Um, have you read “A Scandal in Bohemia”? Holmes was seriously taken with Irene Adler. Conan Doyle said so himself.

    Overall, was a good movie. But shouldn’t go if you have already read the book.

    Ah, spammers are so funny. I would delete this, but it’s too hilarious. “*The* book”? What “*the* book” would that be, d’ya think?

  • http://spinningplatters.com Gordon

    I don’t remember the books enough to know what’s in the spirit of the books or not, but as a movie, I found the whole thing to be pretty boring. I just didn’t care about the story itself, and spent the whole movie waiting for the next scene between Holmes and Watson, because these were the only ones worth watching.

    Some commenter mentioned fan fiction, and I imagine an entirely new generation of Holmes/Watson fic is on its way.

  • Bluejay

    Is it too early to ask minor spoilerish plot questions? There was something toward the end that I didn’t quite get, or maybe I missed something. Not crucial to my enjoyment of the movie, though. I thought it was excellent.

  • Sara

    Great review! I went into this movie (hadn’t read Mary Ann’s review) having only seen the previews and not sure I’d care for the film.
    However, I loved it. What the previews didn’t show me was the almost perfect casting of Downey and Law and how fabulous they played their characters (and yes, played—while they WERE their characters in this film) it was also easy to see that as actors the two had to be having a great time. It all jived, I thought. I’d see it again (and I didn’t think I’d say that as I walked into the theatre.)

  • Pedro

    Good movie. Not great. A couple of things spoil it, namely the dreadful girl character, who couldn’t be more “21st century sass” if she tried. The “evil” minister is also a tad too modern for the setting.

    However, Law and Downey save it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Downey race Brad Pitt for Best Actor in this year’s Oscars. As for Law, I always thought he was a genius piece of casting as Watson, and I stand by my word.

    Plus, although the premise is distinctly non-Holmesian, you can find all the elements you’d find in a true Holmes book, such as the exposition, the impossible deductions and, of course, the action scenes.

    Oh, and loved the reference to Holmes’ classic enemy, towards the end…

    Overall, however, it runs a little long and features a few minor flaws. Still a darn enjoyable movie, though.

  • http://www.newbspeak.com Newbs

    Dr Joe (Thu Dec 24 09, 6:17PM):

    I was thinking of asking if every word you type is po-mo mouth-breathing, and/or snark chasing its own tail for its own sake, but of course you’ve made that entirely unnecessary. Cheers!

    MaryAnn you simply must add “po-mo mouth-breathing snark chasing its own tail for its own sake” to your little description ribbon. Talk about delightful!

    Also… whaaaaaaat?

  • http://www.newbspeak.com Newbs

    Lawschool Douchebag (Wed Dec 23 09, 7:11PM):

    “misanthropic” and “amanuensis” in the same sentence? grandiloquent much?

    I was gonna respond to this with a little diatribe about the beauty of language, but then I saw the name you’d given yourself… and all was forgiven.

    :D

  • LaSargenta

    Stop everything! LaSargenta finally got to the theater and saw this.

    >cough

  • Bluejay

    LaSargenta, maybe you (or anyone who wants) can answer this for me. Hope I’m remembering this right:

    *Spoiler*

    So at the end, they’re fighting the bad guys near the big steampunk doomsday machine thingy, and Watson is subduing the Incredible French-Speaking Hulk, and Irene steals a bit of the machine and runs away, and Holmes runs after her… And it turns out it’s all a distraction so that Moriarty can swing by and grab the machine part he really wants… What happened to Watson? Wasn’t he right next to the machine when last we saw him? Did he just finish his fight with Le Hulk, dust himself off, and walk away?

  • LaSargenta

    Bluejay, I was wondering that, too. But, in order to answer, I’d have to see the movie again and I’m just not willing.

    Anyone else?

  • LaSargenta

    By the way, that rhododendron toxin was already used in some episode of Wild Wild West back in the Watergate days.

  • JSW

    PS: Jude Law couldn’t keep track of his limp. It sometimes disappeared (possible, I have a back injury myself that can “disappear” if I get enough adrenaline pumping and I’m willing to do something that might hurt more later) and it moved from the right to the left and back again. Unless they spliced the film backwards. Oh, but that can’t happen these days, can it? Everything’s digital.

    Watson had trouble keeping track of where his injury was in the original stories, too.